This was my D'var Torah on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the name for the Shabbat that precedes the start of the month when Pesach occurs. These are some of my reflections on the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic; one piece can hardly say it all.
Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, this day in the Jewish calendar, is a set of bookends for both a year in the Torah narrative, and a year in our lives. The parasha (Torah reading) concludes with the final touches on the setup of the temporary, portable Sanctuary -- exactly one year to the day from when Moshe and Aharon were given the instructions for the night they would all leave Egypt. And it was this same Shabbat Hachodesh one year ago that was our first Zoom Shabbat service, with almost all the congregation at home and a minyan of us here celebrating Madeline Lee’s Bat Mitzvah. We have been once through the Torah since our last regular Shabbat service.
What a year was that first year in the Torah – begun in slavery; between the plagues, of darkness and death; then the hurried preparations for the first days of a new life; crossing that Sea; a whole lot of new teachings to take in. Failing at first, badly, with the Golden Calf. Then building the mishkan, the spiritual center, out of everything valuable the people had -- everything valuable they might not even have realized they had -- putting something holy in the center of their camp amidst all the fear and emptiness of the midbar, the desert.
What a year has been this past year of Covid-19.
This morning I want to look back a bit, and next Shabbat to look ahead a bit. I’ll talk from the point of view of us as a whole, but this year hasn’t been the same for each of us and one person can’t presume to tell the story of everyone. People in our community have died of Covid-19, have been sick, have lost family members – at least a tenth of the households in our membership have had someone in their family who has died or been sick, and many more of us have lost friends to the disease. I haven’t asked everyone if they want their loved ones’ names said out loud, but I can say that the first person in our congregation who died from Covid-19 was Joshua Stern, Diana and David’s son, Jessica’s brother, who died during Pesach last year. For many months, the only times that members of the shul would actually see each other officially was at funerals.
Another tenth at least of our congregation has at one point of another lost jobs or hours or income this year because of the pandemic, or had retirement or transition plans disrupted. And I don’t know how to describe the strain and pain this year has contained for so many people who live on their own, as one or two people; who have been confined in elder living communities or long-term care; who are children, and parents of children at home, and parents and grandparents and others separated from their families; who had already been dealing with other physical and emotional challenges and illnesses and family challenges, that are difficult in regular times and even more disrupted this past year.
We have built this past year a mishkan, many mishkenot, a set of holy places and practices, out of our own materials. We have discovered together what it is that we had on hand to build with, what we brought with us hastily into this year.
Most of all we have had mitzvahs. I make a point of noting, most Shabbatot at the start of services, the line we sing as we start, v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – all the ways we have adapted to gathering and staying apart in repeated fulfillment of the mitzvah of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”. I say it out loud to remind us that in these hours on Saturday morning we are holding each other’s lives in our hands; we are holding the lives of the people who live around us, who we don’t know, as our own responsibility. And not just in services but throughout the days of our weeks.
Time has been so amorphous, and a lot of us have been trying recall exactly what the first days of these twelve months were like. For me, it revolved around Purim. On Monday morning, March 9 of last year, I went to Shirley’s apartment at Langdon Place and we recorded our second annual Esther rap. That night we gathered here, in smaller numbers than usual for the Megillah reading. I think we had food even -- we were trying at that time to have one person serve so we wouldn’t all be handling the same serving utensils -- and I remember wondering even then if the Megillah gathering was the right thing to do.
For most of the next few days, our team recreated the upcoming Purim carnival at least once a day. Let’s cancel the Kitah Zayin (7th Grade) pie- throwing booth, and let's also wipe down each ball and fishing stick between participants. No let’s use only disposable balls and sticks, and we’ll just hand out prizes for tickets and not let kids rummage through them. No, let’s not have any of the booths but we’ll just gather in a circle for some songs and have a costume parade.
No, we can’t do it at all. Probably fifteen hours of work just to decide to do nothing.
Let’s bring everyone mishloach manot (Purim baskets), very carefully -- and here, driver, are plastic gloves for you to wear and please put each box in a bag, contact-free, and say hello in person to everyone who answers their door and make sure to stand far enough away, and promise that we’ll see each other soon.
Everything was like that at the start – every decision not to do something took hours, before we even got to figuring out how to do the all-new things or the necessary regular things like shopping for food in a new way.
The day after we delivered mishloach manot in person and said L’hit’raot (“until we see each other”), we sent out a note to whole congregation that we would for the time being gather only online, starting that night, Monday, March 16. I took a bunch of screenshots of that minyan. 24 screens and regular phones all together, most of us named but some identified still by number or e-mail; we were still figuring out Zoom. I must have asked everyone to smile, because in one photo Stan is smiling and Larry is smiling, and Richard and Carol are smiling on different screens in the same home,, and Carlos and Joy and Jessica and Jerry and Laura and Gordon and Nancy and Elliot and Daniel are smiling. And Ira I think is smiling but you can’t really see in the dark of his room. Very quickly we added minyanim for Saturday and Sunday nights, and there hasn’t been a single day we haven’t had a minyan of ten. That Thursday was our first online Religious School class; our triumph was getting Rina Scharf online.
At our best we have been full of mitzvot. We’ve been building a capacity to check in with people by phone; we’ve connected people to resources and support, in personal conversations and what we can put up online. On the fly, we’ve had to figure out how to safely do bikkur cholim, to visit people who have been sick, and dying; how to gather safely for burial; how to comfort people during shiva. Without hugs and with masks; with iPhones streaming and Zooms instead of living rooms. All the extra burdens on those in mourning to stare into that screen at everyone all at once, rather than having people come up to you one by one. I worry about the pent-up and incomplete grief of our mourners.
I am so proud to be connected to the caregivers -- nurses and doctors and elder care and home care workers -- who from the start went into dangers known and unknown, and many of whom volunteer now on their off hours to give vaccines. I am so proud to see in the news and at local meetings members of this congregation who work in public health, in professional roles and on governing boards. I am so grateful to the teachers, and everyone who has had to or who has chosen to go to work in places with known or unknown risks.
In the daily life of Beth Abraham for a year, we have had online gatherings every day and often more than once a day. I believe we have saved at least one life through these gatherings, and we have made other lives more bearable.
So many of our members early on became mask makers. Some sewing by hand, some working for hours after their regular jobs, some converting their slowed-down businesses into mask manufacture, some joining up with calls to action from individual leaders or town organizations. Making masks for frontline workers, who were so short of them at the start. Masks for anyone they worried about, particularly older people but even for my family, so people could go shopping safely. Many of you did that work, to help bridge the weeks it took for an entire industry to get up and running.
At our best as a society scientists and technicians and engineers, and the companies and universities and labs that organize them, have been working nonstop on lifesaving discovery and creation and manufacture and distribution on a huge scale. At our best as a society, we reengineered a system for holding democratic elections, and cried out against continuing racial injustice even as we cried out about everything. At our best, our elected representatives to the Congress in a poisonous political environment worked several times to come to the aid of all of us in massive ways.
Here in the wilderness of New Hampshire, our shul built its new mishkan out of everything we had. We have our Betzalels and their teams-- our tech designers and operators, our Zoom supervisors, our people who know their way around a soundboard and a camera and networking equipment. We have our Aharons and other equivalents to the Kohanim and Levi’im, who organize and lead our services so we could do far more than go through the motions. These things we do, to interact and hear each other and see each other, to create a live service from so many locations -- it’s amazing and I’m proud that we’re toward the forefront. We have our Miryams, who provide inspiration and joy, every week through singing and over coffee and yarn, and cooking and Torah and Hebrew language for adults and for children.
We have been building a mishkan out of things we have. Our fabrics and threads and animals skins include our wires and plexiglass and donated monitors. And of course the money contributed toward this mishkan, the Temple itself. At a time of economic contraction, the synagogue has been stable and we just raised the most money from the Purim baskets we ever have. Incredibly, new people have joined the congregation since a year ago today.
And if I might say something about the Moshe’s, the rabbis. Not just me, but the rabbis of congregations all over North America and the clergy of Greater Nashua who have drawn so close to each other. A year ago, I thought that innovators in American Jewish life were leaving synagogue jobs or never even thinking of coming to work in shuls, all of them off starting their own ventures to do Jewish learning or spirituality. It turns out there are at least a few hundred of us, talking the same language and inventing the same things in parallel, sending around the concept papers and how-to guides, asking each other over and over what do our congregants need, how can we do more than just hold the line. I have personally met at least a dozen amazing colleagues through this grassroots work, people who you’ll never read about in the Times of Israel or the Forward, amazing partners and teachers. All of us know it’s not about the techniques, it’s not about preserving the shuls and our jobs -- it’s about taking care of you.
The pandemic has challenged the practice of Judaism and the reality of Jewish community. I haven’t been in a hospital or an assisted living place or a nursing home, or even inside a shiva home, in this past year. I made that decision with other clergy in town all at once. That was the hardest thing to decide a year ago, and holding back from you at hard times has been the most awful part of my year personally as a rabbi.
We decided, consciously, to change the character of our relationship to computers in the shul on Shabbat. It is absolutely the right decision but it doesn’t work for everyone. Our second or third Shabbat morning on Zoom something was wrong with the setup or people didn’t have the right link, and as I led services by myself I was also checking e-mails and texts from people right here on the bimah. Now we’ll decide what it means to integrate technology into Shabbat the way a previous generation integrated the automobile. Most of all in services, we just miss each others’ voices and spiritual energy.
I have joked occasionally that there is a warehouse somewhere full of all the gefilte fish and pastries that have not been eaten in our shul and other shuls for a year. There was an article a couple months ago in The Atlantic about the loss of Kiddush, the time after services. Actually the word “Kiddush” never appears in the article by Amanda Mull about the loss in our lives of the people we don’t have a good name for -- the relationships of standing around together after services or sitting at a table, deciding to talk for a minute or five or for an hour just on the spot. The conversations that aren’t prearranged but just happen, the intergenerational moments, the moments that breathe with volume and quiet, with interruptions and not just turn-taking, where people sit down and get up in the middle and come back later. A community is supposed to be a place where connections and conversations don’t only take place when they are scheduled or work-oriented or agenda-driven. The loss of Kiddush is profound, the loss of Shabbat dinners and Shabbat lunches and holy days together too.
As a symbol of some of these losses and challenges, I have stubbornly kept our Shabbat service different the past year in a few ways. I have held us back from some of the rituals of reading the Torah and Haftarah -- not only because you are not here and not only because it would not be safe yet to walk around with the Torah if you were. I've insisted on using the not-perfect aspects of Zoom. I’ve done this because our prayer experience itself needs to have some of the not-smoothness and the chaos of our lives, or it won’t be real. I know no one likes the moments when we try to be a minyan together singing or reciting something on Zoom. It doesn’t sound great, but the cacophany has to be here, in the mishkan, a brokenness we bring when we are before the Divine.
What a year since Shabbat Ha-Chodesh twelve months ago. We have brought everything we have to create the mishkan that is our lives; we have been building it for a year and we are still in the desert. I am so grateful for this Shabbat community that has stayed together. I miss you and worry about you. I want to sing with you and just linger with you, with no hurry to get out. I am grateful that you have wanted something for yourself on Shabbat morning, and wanted to be with others when this is not easy. That you have wanted to hear Torah from me, that you have wanted Shabbat to be still somehow a time of joy and a time of mutual support.
Let’s not forget of course that each of us has our own story of this year, and let’s not forget the losses that can never be recovered and especially the people who you have lost and we have lost together.
It is a whole year, an important year we are concluding. We are still in the midbar, still on our way, and may the mishkenot, the spiritual centers of every sort we have built help guide us on our desert journeys ahead -- just like the daytime cloud and the nighttime fire that began on the first day of the first month of the second year, and guided the people on their journeys and never went out. Baruch she-hecheyanu v’kiynmanu v’higiuyanu lazman hazeh – how blessed we are to be alive, to be kept alive, to have arrived at this time. Chazak chazak v’nitchazek -- may we each find strength and continue to give our strength to each other.